If I am asked, what do you propose to substitute[…]? Practically, What have you to recommend? I answer at once, Nothing. The whole current and thought and feeling, the whole stream of human affairs, is setting with irresistible force in that direction. The old ways of living, many of which were just as bad in their time as any of our devices can be in ours, are breaking down all over Europe, and are floating this way and that like haycocks in a flood. Nor do I see why any wise man should expend much thought or trouble on trying to save their wrecks. The waters are out and no human force can turn them back, but I do not see why as we go with the stream we need sing Hallelujah to the river god. I am not so vain as to suppose that anything that I can say will do either good or harm to any perceptible degree, but an attempt to make a few neutral observations on a process which is all but universally spoken of with passion on one side or the other may interest a few readers.
— James Fitzjames Stephen, Liberty, Equality, Fraternity
Every single event in our public life is now instantly swept up into the centrifugal whirlwind of a political culture in which the center has completely failed to hold. Democrats are increasingly defined by their hatred of Republicans, just as Republicans manage to agree about little besides their loathing of Democrats…”A pox on both your houses” might not be a viable politics. But it’s a perfectly understandable response to the grotesque sideshow that American public life has become.
The iron law of oligarchy applies to social media as well. The web of ten to fifteen years ago might have held forth the illusion of an endlessly diverse, decentralized public square, but the inevitable centralization into huge media platforms soon took hold, and the Great a-Wokening of the 2010s (as future historians will surely call it) soon reduced most online writing to a monomaniacal obsession with virtue signaling and a barely-concealed longing for political holy war. It struck me the other day how there are almost no worthwhile independent blogs to be found anymore. People who, in 2007, might have been writing offbeat, interesting essays on Blogspot or WordPress have largely migrated to Twitter or Instagram to produce sentence fragments and snapshots. Those who still want to express thoughts which require some exposition would rather get their work published by the same couple dozen digital magazines and newspapers than “waste” their efforts on a personal blog. Discourse, like water, relentlessly seeks sea level. And so here we are, with the same media outlets publishing boring, interchangeable pieces on the same boring topics, ad nauseam.
The pessimism of Linker and Stephen seems well-grounded. There’s no way out, nothing you could “do” about it. Any hot take you could produce lamenting this state of affairs would only be adding more fuel to the inferno. Shut it off, starve it of oxygen, refuse to participate. Yes, yes, I know. I too have seen the accusations that the ability to ignore politics, or the desire to preserve some small cultural space free of political posturing, is itself an example of white privilege, etc. etc. But if you take the bait, then they’ve got you back where they want you, and you’re arguing on their terms again. If there’s going to be an alternative, isolated individuals will have to create and embody it themselves, in anonymity, if need be.
Emerson once noted about Thoreau that he seemed to need some sort of opposition, or challenge, to bring out the best in his writing or thinking. Though I’d love to be talented or creative enough to generate interesting ideas purely from my own observations and imagination, I fear I’m the same way — it’s much easier to find inspiration in disagreement. Not all opposition is created equal, though. Pascal Bruckner helpfully differentiated between “useful enemies that make you fertile and sterile enemies that wear you out.” The social-justice left and the Trumpist right are the very definition of sterile enemies, and between them, unfortunately, they’ve poisoned most of the media landscape. Nothing suitable for consumption grows there anymore. I’m not vain enough either to think that anything I say could make a difference, but perhaps I can also keep trying to unearth a few observations to interest a few readers. In the midst of this media wasteland, thank God for books.